Obama: U.S Must Strike If Russian Plan Fails

Obama: U.S Must Strike If Russian Plan Fails

By Alexis Simendinger - September 11, 2013

A U.S. clash with Syria became a peculiar dance with Russia Tuesday night as President Obama told Congress to stand down while diplomatic negotiations sort out whether Bashar al-Assad is serious about forfeiting his chemical weapons in exchange for what would amount to prolonged legitimacy.

Using a prime-time address to the nation, Obama shifted a frenzied week of military threats -- and his uphill hunt for congressional approval for a Syrian attack -- to a cautious search for a peaceful alternative.

The president set no deadlines for Assad, but after visiting senators from both parties, Obama asked lawmakers to delay the votes he’d pressed them to cast just a day earlier.

Anticipating the reluctance of lawmakers to back missile strikes when the American public overwhelmingly balked at the prospect, the president’s sudden detour to explore a potential deal with the Syrian regime shifted power from Congress to Moscow and the United Nations. Lawmakers of both parties -- suspicious that Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a door to a dead end -- nevertheless agreed the United States must test Assad’s eagerness to avert attack, and do so fast.

To that end, Obama said he would confer with Putin, as well as his close counterparts in France and Great Britain, to gauge whether Russia and China are privately positioning to block any tough resolution in the U.N. Security Council that maintains military enforcement as an option should Assad not turn over the chemical weapons his regime had long denied possessing until this week. Obama said he wanted a resolution that required the weapons to be relinquished and destroyed -- a process that U.N. experts have said could take years.

“It’s too early to tell if this agreement will succeed,” Obama told the American people. In his speech, he outlined why it was in the nation’s interest to attack Syria “with modest effort and risk.” But then he also described why averting strikes by pursuing what he called an “encouraging” possibility of voluntary compliance in Damascus was also in the U.S. interest.

Any international resolve to allow Assad to turn over his chemical stockpile to an international body, presumably the United Nations, would leave Syria’s president in power and defer to a separate track the U.S. and international objective of a political, negotiated end to Syria’s civil war.

In his speech, Obama said the administration’s military objective differed from the U.S. missions in Kosovo and Libya, in part because any military strikes would not be aimed at killing Assad or forcing him from office as retaliation for the Aug. 21 poisoning of more than 1,400 civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. Assad has repeatedly denied responsibility for the chemical weapons attack.

The president has dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Geneva to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday. Obama has argued that any potential verifiable international pact with Assad, focused on his chemical stockpile, must reserve military punishment as a backstop. Russia, however, argued Tuesday that Assad should not turn over the regime’s chemical arms until international military retaliation has been removed as an option.

Administration officials, dubious about any negotiated agreement that might center on a dictator and the dictator’s enabler (Russia), said the United States would drop the effort to explore diplomacy at the first hint of lies, feints and engineered roadblocks.

Obama, during his 16-minute address, described a new timeline that defers the U.S. military option and congressional involvement at least through the end of September.

“We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21,” he said.

Obama’s comment indicated the administration is prepared to holster its military option for at least several weeks, since the team that gathered evidence of gassing in Syria is not expected to deliver a final report to the U.N. until the end of the month, at the earliest. In August, the administration argued to get independent inspectors into Syria, but then said the inspectors’ affirmation of a chemical attack would be redundant and unnecessary.

Tissue and soil samples and other evidence of what Obama said was sarin gas fired from rockets has been transferred by the inspection team to laboratories in a handful of countries, including the United States.

One of the murkier topics in Washington has been whether the U.S. government and intelligence experts know where Assad’s chemical weapons are hidden and stored, considering reports that the regime has moved stockpiles during the conflict with rebel fighters. Both Assad and the United States have referred to some of the opposition factions as “terrorists” and Obama said Tuesday he worries that the chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the United States had no doubts about where the toxic chemicals were located. “This is no classified information, but we know exactly where the chemical weapons are,” he asserted.

Senior administration officials, speaking on background to reporters Aug. 30 about the declassified U.S. intelligence behind Obama’s “high confidence” that the Assad regime gassed Syria’s civilian population, said the government has tracked the lethal program over many years.

“Our insights into the history and the scope and the prior use of this program is fairly extensive,” one official noted. “It’s a very large program. It’s a very capable and it’s a very well-run program. So there isn’t anything that we learned really new other than, again, their willingness to employ it in greater measure than we had seen in the past.”

The president’s attention to Syria is expected to impact the rest of his agenda this year, if for no other reason than time on the legislative calendar is short.

The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and the nation’s authority to borrow funds to pay its bills expires sometime between mid-October and early November. Obama and House Republican leaders are heading into what promises to be a challenging battle over spending cuts, adding new debt, and the GOP’s vow to repeal or defund the Affordable Care Act.

In addition, Obama has promised to push through immigration reform this year, also an uphill climb in the House.

Bowing to Americans’ impatience with the government’s sudden focus on potentially new military intervention in the Middle East, Obama said he remained eager to return to his economic and job-creation ideas.

“I know Americans want all of us in Washington -- especially me -- to concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home: putting people back to work, educating our kids, growing our middle class,” he said.

Obama used that point in his speech to pivot into a series of questions about Syria he said he’d heard from the public and sought to answer.

But a question many lawmakers have asked, echoing the general public, about how military strikes would specifically meet U.S. objectives in Syria over the long term remained somewhat vague Tuesday.

“The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use,” the president said, noting that Assad would remain in power. Though he might forfeit his chemical weapons, Assad would retain the capacity to kill Syrians with conventional ones.

“Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver,” Obama continued. “I don't think we should remove another dictator with force -- we learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad, or any other dictator, think twice before using chemical weapons.”

In the meantime, the U.S. military will stand ready for new orders, the president added, “to keep the pressure on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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